Do you know Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, The Lamplighter?
MY tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky;
It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.
Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,
And my papa’s a banker and as rich as he can be;
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I’m to do,
O Leerie, I’ll go round at night and light the lamps with you!
For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light;
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him to-night!
Walking up Hawthorne Avenue I came upon a house lamp I’ve passed hundreds of times, but tonight, dusk looming behind the just-bloomed rhododendrons, it reminded me of Leerie.
Good poems occupy you, right? They stake a claim, set up shop, colonize your whole being – heart – head – deep in your throat. The Lamplighter lives just below my breastbone. When I touch my hand to my chest I can hear Stevenson’s words in my grandmother’s voice: high, tender, full of flourish and song.
Every time I reach the second stanza I feel exactly as I did as a child, deeply heart struck and excited. Part of that feeling is poet business, of course, rhythms and line breaks and rhymes. But to be a lamplighter? What a thing! Imagine carrying your ladder from house to house-glancing in windows … just think of everything you would see there. The whole world in an instant, setting small flames alight all over town.